Friday, March 21, 2014

On Reading 'Church Growth' Books

For my doctoral studies, one of our required courses is entitled Church Growth. Exciting right?

Like the rest of our core classes, we must read two thousand pages of literature before entering the classroom later this summer. After buying a dozen or so of these "church growth" books (at least they were cheap; there are so many of them!), I gulped reluctantly and bit in. 

I must confess that this is some of the most arduous reading I have ever done, not because it is too hard conceptually (the writing is actually quite fluffy and banal), but because of the severe beating my pride has taken. Where are the Puritans when I need them?

If most of these modern, cutting-edge experts are correct, I am doing practically everything wrong. In fact, I am hardly a "pastor" at all, by today's modern standards. Today's church leaders must be visionaries!

If my church is to grow--so say the gurus--I must do all of the following well:
  1. Enact a God-inspired "vision" for our church (read: be able to see the future and make it come to pass by an act of sheer willpower).
  2. Exude a dynamic, relevant presence in the pulpit that simultaneously inspires, convicts, inspires, leads, inspires, motivates, inspires, and rebukes--all winsomely!
  3. Launch self-replicating core groups led by omni-competent laypersons which will galvanize entire neighborhoods and suburbs with contagious Christianity. 
  4. Transform the old, "institutional" congregation by instead inspiring a "Jesus movement" that defies all the normal laws of ecclesiastical physics (like budgets and parking). 
All of this is possible, the authors assure me, because they have done it themselves. Flip the book to the inside of the dust jacket, and their credentials remind me of what I have been fearing all along: I must be a complete slacker. 

You haven't started a movement yet? Are you even TRYING?

One bio boasts that this mega-pastor's mega-church's mega-ministry has already planted 100 other churches! In chapter five, he tells readers that his goal is to plant 1,000 churches in one year, maybe even 10,000! (No, I'm not kidding).

If he is to be believed, my home church's single, solitary church plant looks pretty pathetic by comparison.

At this point, someone will accuse me of being anti-evangelistic. I assure you that I am not. If there is something that my church can do to grow faster, reach more people, or win our neighborhood with the Gospel in a more biblical way, I am all ears. I do want to learn from these experts, even if that learning forces me to see my own weaknesses (which are many) or my church's own weaknesses (to which I am often blind).

But must every pastor be a "visionary"? Must every local church transform itself into a "movement"? Is that even possible? Where does the sovereignty of God fit in?

At some point, I must be content with what God has given me: real responsibility for a real family of about 400 souls in small-town Brooksville, Florida (population: 7,719). Even if every person in my entire city attended my church--which I doubt would even be healthy--I still wouldn't have a "movement" the size of most of the authors I am reading.

But is there really anything wrong with that? I don't think so.

Perhaps there is some "church growth" that cannot be measured with metrics. Perhaps some progress in the Kingdom is invisible to human eyes. Perhaps some of the most visionary leaders are those who don't write guru-books. They just preach the Bible week after week. Show up at hospitals. Baptize babies. Perform funerals. Love people. Treat their wife and children with compassion.

Maybe faithfulness is really greater than "success" after all. I hope so.

Because if success and faithfulness are the same thing, I'm not sure it's possible for me to be either.

--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith.


  1. This course is "required" for Ph.D. candidates at RTS (Orlando)? At best, does the course present an evenhanded view of the Church Growth Movement, an attempt at some sort of "sociological look" at CGM ecclesiology? Still, and most horrifying, from your description of the fluffy, required reading, one fears that your academic advisors intend for their students to emulate CGM tactics at some point in their ministries.

    One might suggest the two books of Timothy as a model for a faithful minister instead of the books you are forced to read in order to learn to "do ministry." [Even this is a nefarious, CGM term used here in a pejorative way...]

    A Ph.D. is a desirable thing, allowing one to learn more of the immeasurable truths of God's word so that one can then instruct the sheep under one's care more fully. As you suspect, courses that present church growth "methods" as positive techniques, in reality work just the opposite and move pastors away from the ordinary means Christ uses to grow His church into pragmatic, compromising positions that will "work" in a business setting but have no place in Christ's church.

  2. Great Post. But I am sure this is for a Doctor of Ministry, not a PhD. The two programs are as different as night and day. Back in the day, pastors did not feel a need to get a doctorate; just faithfully pastor one flock for as long as God let them.

  3. Author's Note: I am a DMIN student at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando) and I love the program, and our professors there. This article reacts to some (but not all) of the books that are on the reading list for this course. Some were required, others were on the suggested list to fulfill the page requirement. A couple of the better books for this course did also critique the very church growth trends I am critiquing in this post. I am sure that the book list for this course does not necessarily reflect the views of the professor or RTS Orlando. Part of our assignment includes critically reacting to these works, so this blog post reflects some of my reactions as such. -Matthew

  4. Good thoughts. When I read the sort of literature you describe I think of Jesus' approach to church growth in John 6:60 and following: "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” ...After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” I don't think Jesus quite got the idea of "felt needs".
    Thanks for the post.